Inside: Getting stationed in Okinawa? These are three things that transformed our time there for the better. Plus, a life lesson that came full circle at the end of our three years in Japan.
I never expected leaving the US for Okinawa to feel as hard as it did. We did volunteer to go after all, and if I’m being honest, we wanted the adventure of living overseas. But that’s not exactly how the journey went.
I’ll never forget the day I said goodbye to my dad before flying away to Oki for three years. I put my hand on the doorknob and prepared to walk out of his house when the emotional tidal wave slammed straight into my heart. I didn’t realize it until that moment, but that was the last time I would see my dad before we left.
Everything turned to slow motion as I released the knob, turned around and sprinted up the stairs to his office. Panic set in, and there was no stopping the tears from pouring down my cheeks and onto the floor. I looked to my dad, sobbing. “I’m…I’m…I’m leaving.” That was all I could manage to say in that moment, and between a father and daughter, those were the only words needed. He stood up, walked over to me and hugged me like I was a kid again.
Together we stood there sobbing. There’s a different feeling that comes with moving overseas, and in many ways, it feels like you’re leaving everything you’ve ever known behind — forever. You think you’re prepared to leave, your service member may volunteer, you may look forward to your new adventure, but eventually the emotional tidal wave will slam into you.
Transitioning into our new life in Oki was beyond hard, but there are three things that transformed the way we felt about living overseas.
1. You do not need to bloom immediately.
They all say, “Bloom where you are planted.” To an extent, this is a great idea, but there is also something to be said about giving yourself grace. If you’re sad, frustrated or lonely overseas, you can tell yourself to bloom, but without validating that for yourself, it’s hard to move forward.
Remember, all growth is through acceptance. In order to grow — or bloom — you first need to acknowledge and accept where you are in the moment. Talk to friends or family members who will listen and validate what you’re experiencing without trying to fix it or offer solutions. You need someone who can say to you:
“You’re half a world away from everything you’ve ever known and that’s an awful feeling!”
“You’re sick of the mold and swamp hair and micro cars.”
“You spent three hours driving in circles (and accidentally turning on the wipers) while trying to find the glass factory and that really stinks!”
If you don’t have a friend to validate those feelings for you, validate them for yourself. Once you can validate the challenges of life overseas, you can finally open yourself up to the amazing world of people around you.
2. Sunday dinners can save you.
There’s a peace and comfort that comes from a routine with other friends. We paired up with another family, and together, we met for dinner nearly every Sunday for three years. It became such a rich part of our lives that it was sad to see Sunday dinners stop when we left Oki this past fall. We all stood crying in the entryway of a home on McT while our kids said goodbye to one another.
You could have Sunday dinners or movies on Fridays or Saturday walks. Any routine that you can regularly have with friends in Oki can transform the way you feel about being there. These little rituals help it feel like home and gives you a sense of belonging. Don’t have a friend to ask? Start with a neighbor or one of your service member’s co-workers.
3. Your house must be a home.
If your house is filled with white empty walls and government furniture, it only serves as a reminder that this isn’t your home or your life. It screams that you don’t belong there and that you need to get back “home.”
As soon as you possibly can, make your house a home: An oasis that not only you want to come home to everyday, but also a home that you want to welcome all your neighbors and friends. Take the time to get your family photos taken and put them on the walls throughout your home. You’ll never look back on your time in Oki and say, “I have too many pictures or my house was too much like a home.”
Turns out, leaving was equally painful.
We drove to pick up my best friend, who would take us to the airport. As she hopped in the front seat, darkness blanketed the early morning sky. And immediately a tightness leapt into my throat. Because this was real. Too real.
We were leaving, and it would be a long time before I saw my friend again. In fact, I had no idea when we would see each other. As I took another sip of coffee trying to numb my throat, memories of our three years overseas flooded my brain.
Memories of the birth of our daughter and friends really being there. Memories of Christmas and other holidays spent with friends who became our family. Memories of nights out with friends and far too much Orion.
The sun peeked over the horizon as we arrived to the terminal for our departure back to the US. I opened the rear doors to get the kids out. I looked to my friend and said, “I’m…I’m…I’m leaving.” She got out of the car, walked over to me and hugged me like I was family. Together we stood there sobbing.
You think you’re prepared to leave. You think you’re ready to return to your life in the US. You may look forward to your new duty station. But eventually the emotional tidal wave builds, crashes into your heart and makes you realize that all of your time spent in Okinawa — good and bad — served a deep and meaningful purpose.
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